Friday, April 25, 2008

Justice at stake in cuts to state courts


The Florida Legislature has proposed a 2008-09 budget of about $65 billion. A joint legislative conference committee is currently ironing out its differences and, if approved by both houses, will send a final budget bill to the governor for his signature. This proposed budget essentially reduces the state courts system's budget to a level equivalent of what it was three years ago.

So let's put this into perspective. In 2005, the population of the 7th Judicial Circuit (Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties) was 791,371. The 2005-06 state budget was $63 billion, of which, the judicial branch was appropriated $405 million (slightly more than 6/10 of one percent). In 2007, the population of our circuit had grown to 846,833 and the 2007-08 state budget was $71 billion, of which, the judicial branch was appropriated $491 million (7/10 of one percent).

Statewide, felony criminal filings have increased 26 percent in the last five years. Mortgage foreclosures have gone up almost 100 percent in just the last two years. With this year's economic crisis, the justice system is nearing its breaking point. Proposed budget cuts to the court system are likely to result in the loss of many highly trained personnel. If this occurs, judges will have no alternative but to ration justice.

That's right. Judges will have to determine whether certain types of cases should be pushed aside so that more pressing cases can be disposed of. Priority must be given to criminal and juvenile delinquency cases where the liberty interests of defendants are at stake. Priority also must be given to the involuntary commitment of mentally ill persons and persons with substance abuse issues. Cases involving abused, abandoned and neglected children must also be given priority to safeguard children's welfare.

Civil cases involving mortgage foreclosures, landlord-tenant disputes, personal injury suits, contract disputes and business cases of all types will have to be delayed or pushed aside indefinitely. Family cases not involving immediate risk of harm will have to be deferred.

In November 2003, the American Bar Association (ABA) created a Commission on State Court Funding. The commission examined problems arising from chronic under-funding of state judicial systems. According to the report, "If we deny basic funding for the courts, we endanger public safety and fail to provide a neutral forum for people to resolve disputes. All branches of government have faced budget cuts during fiscal crises, but as a society we have crossed the line when a lack of money means courthouse doors are closed and the administration of justice stops in our criminal and civil courts."

The citizens of this great state have enjoyed the services of one of the most respected and efficient systems of justice in the United States. Florida's judicial branch of government has maintained that system with much fewer dollars than many other large states. We cannot afford to destroy such a fine system of justice. With the cuts in the Legislature's proposed budget, it is unlikely that our justice system will recover for many, many years. It will be the citizens who suffer. And that would be a shame.

Walsh is the chief judge of the 7th Judicial Circuit Court

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